The best explanation for the death of Epstein

Jamie Bernstein explains the most likely explanation for Epstein’s suicide: neglect, terrible conditions, and America’s prison system.

The truth is that the Metropolitan Correction Center where Epstein was being held, like other federal jails, has suffered from decades of budget shortfalls and understaffing. The night that Epstein died, the two corrections officers that were on staff were both working overtime hours, and for one of the officers, it was his fifth night in a row working overtime. In terms of conditions at the jail, Slate writes that “in the Special Housing Unit where Epstein was held, the fluorescent lights are kept on 23 or 24 hours a day, prisoners are prohibited from calling out to each other, and the cell windows are frosted to prevent any glimpse of the outside world,” conditions that can often lead to mental illness and suicidal tendencies. They also point out that even though mental illness and suicide is extremely common in jails, at MCC there was only one psychiatrist on staff for both MCC and another local jail, a population of 2000 prisoners.

In a way, I think I want to believe Epstein was murdered because it’s a tidy end to the story of Epstein. It’s easy to believe that Epstein, by dealing with experts at crimes and coverups, ended up as the victim of one of those crimes and coverups. I want to believe it was murder, but the truth is much scarier.

The truth is that the MCC already had a reputation as an extremely dangerous place that was often mismanaged, creating situations that put their inmates at risk. Slate writes this about the MCC

We know that MCC, the federal prison in Manhattan that also recently housed Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, was deemed “worse than Guantanamo” by someone who spent time in both facilities. We know that cells are infested with bugs and rats so big they’re “more like roommates” and that the temperature swings from unbearable heat to frigid cold. We know that inmates have not received adequate medical care, that a corrections officers was found guilty of raping an inmate, and that officials allegedly tried to cover up the fatal beating of another prisoner.

It seems likely that Epstein was taken off suicide watch early because suicide watch is expensive and they need to conserve their budget. It seems likely that the inmate who was staying with Epstein was transferred out because he needed to be moved and the jail didn’t have the resources or manpower to quickly find a replacement cellmate. It seems likely that the corrections officers who were working the night of Epstein’s death were not checking on him every 30 minutes because they were overworked and tired and likely had many other inmates to check-in on every 30 minutes, along with a lot of other work to do, so doing those bi-hourly checks just fell by the wayside.

We don’t need a vast conspiracy among powerful people to explain why Epstein died. We already have the information we need to know what happened, but we don’t want to face it because it means we might have to do something about it. Epstein likely died due to suicide in a jail that didn’t have the budget or wherewithal to be able to fully protect him and provide him with mental health resources when he showed suicidal tendencies. He died because federal jails in the US are terrifying hell-holes with conditions that exacerbate mental illness then do not provide inmates the medical care they need to manage their conditions. It’s not a conspiracy so much as a total lack of regard from politicians and the taxpaying public who vote for them.

If you want a conspiracy theory, you can have one…but it should revolve around the right-wing demonization of drugs and mental illness, the proliferation of for-profit prisons, and the awful people who run prisons as punitive pits for the unwanted. I’ll believe in that before I believe in shadowy assassins staging murders as suicides in prisons.

Next question: why aren’t we doing something about our national hell-holes? A billionaire was driven to suicide in one, shouldn’t that be enough to motivate Republicans to change policies? I know they’re only about self-interest, but the odds are improving that they’ll eventually end up in one, you know. Trump himself could end up in the Metropolitan Correction Center, and I don’t believe his pampered ass would last long “with bugs and rats so big they’re ‘more like roommates'”, although his Cabinet might be preparing him for that situation.


  1. jrkrideau says

    Well, I would not be terribly surprised if he was murdered. To be honest, it is not all that difficult in a jail/prison.

    But suicide in a hellhole like that also sounds perfectly reasonable. We have some hellhole prisons and correctional institutions here in Canada but I do not think we have anything quite that bad. And we have suicides.

    He knew he was in deep trouble and not likely to get to Club Fed.

  2. says

    I very much would have preferred if Epstein has spent the rest of his life in prison alive. Forever held up as an example of the worst the human race has to offer. I call it the full Manson treatment. Eventually he would become completely toothless and irrelevant, but still held up as a warning to others. Monsters like this need to be stopped.

  3. lasius says

    This reminds me of an old GDR joke.

    Erich Honecker and some higher ups of the party are visiting a kindergarten. The place is a total dump with the roof leaking mold in the walls. “I am grateful for the work you are doing under these circumstances, but money is tight and we won’t be able to raise your budget this year.”

    Next they are visiting a school. That building is even more dilapitated, with broken windows, nonfunctional heating and stairs that are close to collapsing. But here too Honecker has to put them off due to budgetary concerns.

    Finally they are visitin a prison. “Yeah, the swimming pool looks nice, but the inmates could use a sauna. Also the prison guarden is a bit run down, be sure to hire more gardeners. We will double your budget this year.”

    After leaving, one of the fellow politicians asks Honecker why the state has money to improve the lives of criminals, but can’t fund proper education of their children. Honecker replies: “Well, comrade, do you see yourself going to kindergarten anytime soon?”

  4. jrkrideau says

    Forgot. Sorry.
    shadowy assassins staging murders as suicides in prisons

    Clearly you have never worked in a prison.

    One does not need “shadowy assassins”. A couple of thousand dollars to an inmate with access will do it. The thing is that there should be no access to a high risk prisoner in what should have been protective custody.

    OTOH, MCC sounds like a mad house, not a properly run jail.

    I think you are correct and it was a suicide but I do not think we can totally discount something else.

  5. PaulBC says

    A billionaire was driven to suicide in one, shouldn’t that be enough to motivate Republicans to change policies?

    No (you are joking, I know), but they’ll probably be quicker with excuses to send VIPs to nicer prisons. Manafort was due to go to Rikers Island, and the “Justice” Department stepped in to prevent it. While I wouldn’t wish Rikers Island on anybody, there seemed to be no explanation for this except that we don’t send people like Manafort to the same hellholes the “little people” go. The fact that Epstein did not get special treatment suggests some intentional neglect.

  6. wzrd1 says

    Until this, I actually respected the Department of Justice, mostly out of respect for the professionalism of most FBI agents I’ve worked with.

    Still, I find it fascinating that a prison guard working overtime is given a free pass when he or she fucks up. Will that give me a free pass the next time I’m working overtime, should I fuck up and I don’t know, burn down the building or something equally negligent?
    Oh wait, I’m considered a professional, so I’d be held to task for negligence.

  7. says

    Yeah, he already attempted suicide at least once previously. Nobody had to murder him. At worst his suicide watch was called off deliberately instead of due to budgetary concerns, but as stated, it was likely due to budgetary concerns.

  8. jrkrideau says

    @ 7 Tabby Lavalamp
    That first instance strikes me as much as an inmate attack as a suicide attempt. Keeping a pedophile alive in jail is not easy.

    But a suicide watch is costly and difficult at the best of times and difficult to do. It sounds like the MCC just did not have the skill and resources to do it.

    Which reminds me, holidays in Damascus are beginning to sound safer than in New York City.

  9. Matt G says

    A “conspiracy theory” supported by evidence is not a conspiracy theory, PZ.

    I’m sure Epstein wasn’t adequately checked up on. They probably get billionaires in there all the time….

  10. says

    Now that an oligarch has died in MCC maybe the place will get some of the public scrutiny it deserves. Looking for the cloud’s silver lining.

  11. PaulBC says

    Well, this is at least a little, uh, irregular:

    “How Did News Of Epstein’s Death End Up On 4Chan First?”

    “[D]ont ask me how I know, but Epstein died an hour ago from hanging, cardiac arrest. Screencap this,” read the post, accompanied by an image of right-wing mascot Pepe the Frog. It was another 38 minutes before ABC News became the first major outlet to break the story.

    This doesn’t even support a conspiracy theory in an obvious way, but it certainly odd.

  12. says

    Paul, the problem is people think places like 4Chan are populated by 15-year-olds, but there are a lot of adults there including, no doubt, prison guards and first responders.

  13. PaulBC says

    Point taken, but I find it disturbing (not surprising) that prison guards and first responders are posting under the banner of Pepe the Frog. Or more to the point, that such prison guards are so widespread that one happened to be privy to this information before the press got it (i.e. not just any prison guard but one with alt right sentiments). What kinds of monsters are we nurturing on the public till?

  14. says

    “Point taken, but I find it disturbing (not surprising) that prison guards and first responders are posting under the banner of Pepe the Frog.”

    Oh, I’d find it surprising to find prison guards not posting under that banner. Cops too. Fire fighters wouldn’t surprise me if it’s a majority. Paramedics are the ones I would suspect have the most diversity, but would not be shocked to find out I’d be wrong there.

  15. markkernes says

    Gotta say, I don’t understand your off-hand dismissal of the possibility that Epstein was killed rather than killed himself. Talk about a guy who knows where the bodies are buried! We certainly haven’t seen the full extent of the evidence of Epstein’s crimes, who was involved and who benefitted, but there’s no doubt those would include some VERY high-profile individuals—individuals who could easily have arranged for prison guards to look the other way, for Epstein to be alone in his cell, and for him to be taken off suicide watch. So while there’s a good chance this WAS a suicide, count me as supporting much more investigation into the situation.

  16. Akira MacKenzie says


    Arrogant, narcissistic, child rapists, like Epstein, don’t commit ”suicide.” This was a fucking hit—pure and simple—ordered by the man who. Would stand to lose the most from Epstein’s testimony: Our current pussy-grabbing, child rapist, president who has longed to have the power to rub out political threats like his idols Putin and Kim.

    Stop pretending that this country hasn’t crossed over the line and become a fascist dictatorship or can be saved through legal, democratic means. That time has long gone.

  17. nomdeplume says

    Private prisons are the ultimate example of the failure of privatisation of public functions and facilities – just ahead of hospitals, schools, aged care, child care, infrastructure, energy supply, telecommunications, electoral systems, police, army … But hey, a lot of money to be made.

  18. Akira MacKenzie says

    EDIT:…ordered by the man who would stand to lose the most from Epstein’s testimony…

  19. PaulBC says

    Tabby Lavalamp@14

    Well, I don’t have any stats so who knows. It opens up another possibility I hadn’t considered, that a prison guard offed Epstein not out of personal animus but because he was worried that Epstein would rat out Trump and took on the job freelance.

    I’m not saying that’s what happened. I am wondering what sort of hellscape I’m living in that this strikes me as one of the more plausible explanations.

  20. jrkrideau says

    @ 19 PaulBC
    hadn’t considered, that a prison guard offed Epstein not out of personal animus but because he was worried that Epstein would rat out Trump and took on the job freelance.

    Ten or twenty thousand dollars would probably do it. No concern about Trump or Epstein per se, just a financial transaction.

    But, of course, no wealthy pedophile would do this.

  21. KG says

    A hypothesis of a conspiracy becomes a “conspiracy theory” when there is good evidence it is false, but people persisit with it anyway.
    1) Is it implausible that a number of rich and powerful people will be very relieved Epstein is dead?
    2) Is it implausible that some of these people would be willing to get Epstein killed?
    3) Is it implausible that some of the same people would have the ability to recruit a killer within a “hellhole” prison?
    4) How would things appear different, at the present time, if some such person had arranged for Epstein’s death?

  22. nikolai says

    A hypothesis of a conspiracy becomes a “conspiracy theory” when there is good evidence it is false, but people persisit with it anyway.

    No — that’s not how either evidence or knowledge work. A hypothesis of a conspiracy is a “conspiracy theory” until and unless evidence of that conspiracy is brought to bear. Evidence that it is false is just gravy. If there’s no good evidence to show that it is true, it cannot be treated as true by default.

    With that in mind, the first three things in your list are about plausibility, which is not evidence. The last requires specific knowledge of the evidence, which I don’t think anyone here has.

  23. microraptor says

    A new report out this morning is that the guards at the prison who were supposed to be checking on Epstein fell asleep and didn’t check on him for about three hours, then falsified their records.

  24. ikanreed says

    Sorry, I’ve been anti-conspiracy theory for decades, and believing he killed himself is completely unreasonable sans material evidence.

  25. says

    “The best explanation for the death of Epstein” ??
    As Sherlock Holmes said, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence.”
    PZ frequently ignores this.

  26. PaulBC says

    Well, Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character. It is nearly impossible to have “all” the evidence, so I’m not sure when you’re allowed to start theorizing.

    I think it is harmless to propose alternative scenarios that are consistent with available evidence and don’t require an unreasonable number of suppositions. It is unclear why anyone needs to show a strong preference for one until they need to act on that belief.

    It is also a mistake to conclude that no foul play is involved just because there is an explanation that doesn’t require it. At least some murders are carried out to look like they have other explanations. Unfortunately, there is not much you can do. In some cases, you might be able to show that accident cannot explain the recurrence of some event in aggregate, but in this case the sample size is too small.

  27. John Morales says

    Bob, you appeal to a fictional detective? Heh.

    OK, your hypothesis is that PZ breaches the rules of a fictional detective; presumably, you are in possession of all the facts about PZ, so you’re not being hypocritical.

  28. John Morales says

    [BTW, most of the fictional detective’s work was abductive or inductive, not deductive. I’ve read the stories. And this is a case of abductive reasoning]

  29. KG says

    No — that’s not how either evidence or knowledge work. A hypothesis of a conspiracy is a “conspiracy theory” until and unless evidence of that conspiracy is brought to bear. Evidence that it is false is just gravy. If there’s no good evidence to show that it is true, it cannot be treated as true by default. – nikolai@22

    No – that’s not how language works. “Conspiracy theory” is a pejorative compound noun, in which “theory” does not have either its ordinary meaning, or the meaning it has in science. Moreover, refusing to dismiss the possibility of a conspiracy is not treting it as true by default.

  30. PaulBC says

    The autopsy may or may not show something unusual. I’ll leave that to medical forensics experts.

    But I noted this with interest:

    One staffer was not currently a regular guard; both were on overtime

    Rules at the Federal Bureau of Prisons allow for people who work in other prison jobs, such as teachers and cooks, to be trained to fill in at posts usually manned by regular guards.

    This may not be what happened, but it’s going in my screenplay:

    Jeffrey Epstein : You’re not a cook.
    Menacing Prison Guard : Yeah, well… I also cook.

  31. dianne says

    One thing I find odd and disturbing about this whole episode is that I know people who believe Epstein was killed and people who believe he committed suicide. Both are convinced that proponents of the other theory wear tinfoil hats.

    Epstein was disgraced and unlikely to get out of prison any time soon, possibly never in his life. I find the idea that he might have thought that intolerable and killed himself not implausible.

    Epstein had information that could bring disgrace, up to and including life long imprisonment, to many wealthy men, including at least one with mob connections. I find the idea that one or more of them could have killed him (or more likely paid to have him killed) not implausible.

    So as far as I’m concerned, we have two very plausible possibilities. Why are people who favor one hypothesis so dismissive of those who favor the other?

  32. dianne says

    Also Sherlock Holmes is wrong: It’s important to establish a hypothesis a priori and then test its validity against the facts that you discover afterwards. A post hoc analysis has much less power.